October 5, 1726, marked a major turning point for the business house of the Jhaveris. Until then, at least two generations of the family enjoyed privileged access to the Mughal court as royal jewellers and bankers. On that day, however, such favourable relations took an irreversible turn. Khushalchand Jhaveri, 46, was summoned to Bhadra Fort located in the old walled city of Ahmedabad near the Sabarmati River. The historic city of Ahmedabad, or Old Ahmedabad as it is known today, was the capital of the Gujarat province of the Mughal Empire.

A fertile coastal region situated in western India, the province, or suba as it was known in official parlance, was then overseen by the subadar or governor Sarbuland Khan. Khushalchand was a resident of the area and had visited Bhadra Fort on several occasions prior. But this time would prove to be different. Sarbuland Khan needed lots of money to fight off political rivals. Of late, this had morphed into utter desperation as there was no financial help from the reigning Mughal emperor Muhammad Shah, who resided some 1,000 km away in Shahjahanabad, the imperial capital known famously today as Old Delhi. After approaching the towering gates of the citadel in measured steps, Khushalchand, accompanied by a business associate, entered the compound and slowly made his way to the audience hall inside Bhadra Fort.

Ahmedabad was founded in 1411. Political elites erected the Bhadra Fort and its stone rubble perimeter on an elevated plain just off the eastern bank of the Sabarmati River. In those days, walling the city secured protection, while the river’s water provided sustenance in the form of food and irrigation. Further east of the impressive fort and within the medieval city’s limits was a triple gateway and the main mosque. During the 15th and 16th centuries, nobles and merchants developed this area into a major centre of business activity. It is known today as Manek Chowk. By the time the Mughals arrived in the late sixteenth century, Old Ahmedabad had already grown into a sophisticated urban network spanning 43 acres, comparable to 26 square blocks of a major American city. Accentuated by numerous gates and roads leading in and out of the city, it was to this dense world of political and mercantile activity that Khushalchand belonged.

Having entered Bhadra Fort from the Teen Darwaza gate, Khushalchand and his partner passed the fish market on their right and crossed the central plaza towards the governor’s main chamber. They exchanged apprehensive glances as Sarbuland Khan’s mounting irritation was audible across the way. As they entered the echoing hall, the large gathering of government officials and elites of the city came into clear focus. Mughal officials stood erect and silent, and even more fretful looking were the other merchants of the city, several with their backs glued to the wall. Of the moneyed merchants present, two of them had just refused loans to Sarbuland Khan, and the irate politician in need had them thrown behind bars in the tower prison of Bhadra Fort seen above. Khushalchand, at the time one of Ahmedabad’s wealthiest citizens, was his last hope. Yet, there was a problem.

Khushalchand had already provided several loans to Sarbuland Khan’s government in weeks prior. These totalled into several hundred thousand rupees, and there was no indication that the state’s representative was planning to repay the large sum. For Khushalchand, making any further advances would be inopportune if not outright foolish. Sensing this appropriate hesitation in Khushalchand, the Mughal governor became enraged and suddenly turned violent. Picking up his long leather whip, Sarbuland Khan brutally lashed Khushalchand.

The banker cowered in terror as his first beating from a Mughal official continued in full view. Groveling on the floor, Khushalchand shuddered and shivered. This was the first time that he had been subject to extortion of the most intrepid kind. It was even more humiliating as state officials and elites of the city stood witness. Sarbuland Khan capped the beatdown with an injunction, that Khushalchand immediately hand over any “hidden money and wealth, located either at home or buried elsewhere.”

Under immense duress and without any choice, Khushalchand gestured for his company associate to accompany several of Sarbuland Khan’s men to his large mansion. The home was situated in the heart of jhaveriwada, or the Jeweller’s Quarters located on the other end of the medieval walled city. The occupational namesake of the family, the residential manors of the famed Jhaveriwada contained the largest concentration of private wealth in the city. Eager to recover all that Khushalchand possessed, Mughal officials dug deeply, both in and around his large home. They found priceless jewels and hoards of silver and gold money. They confiscated these personal possessions along with many other valuable items that belonged to Khushalchand’s family members. Khushalchand was then held as a prisoner in the fortress without bail.

Three days later, and still not satisfied with the wealth brutally mined from the Jhaveri family, Sarbuland Khan “once again lashed Khushalchand the banker with his own hands and exacted 200,000 silver rupees from him.” Khushalchand was subject to further beatings and merciless extortion for 21 additional days. Finally, on October 28, Sarbuland Khan sentenced Khushalchand to “prison confinement until death.”

This was the first time in recorded history that a member of the Jhaveri family was brutalised at the hands of a Mughal official. In earlier times, members of the family were considered close friends of the court. Such favourable relations were transforming into theatrical-level hostility as the Mughal state’s need for money grew rapidly, and as the royal family’s political footing in Gujarat, and really across much of the subcontinent, was being challenged by rivals. Yet, unpredictable physical torture and erratic imprisonment for confiscatory sums was no way for the city’s top bankers to live. Violence was disruptive.

Plus, Ahmedabad’s businessmen could hardly match the physical strength and tenacity of seasoned military officers like Sarbuland Khan, who were willing to risk their own lives and sacrifice others to remain in power.

How then did Khushalchand Jhaveri overcome the political instability that threatened his personal safety and the fortunes of his family, which were built up over several generations? The answer lies somewhere in the intrigue involved with moving and manipulating capital. He was intimately familiar with the art of playing with money. He saw immense opportunity in deploying personal finance given the growing impoverishment of Mughal elites on the one hand, and the increasing presence of new money-hungry aspirants to power on the other.

The changing contours of how financial and political elites interacted with each other during the high and low periods of Mughal rule between the 17th and 18th centuries forms the subject of my new book, Bankrolling Empire: Family Fortunes and Political Transformation in Mughal India published by Cambridge University Press.

Bankrolling Empire centres around the remarkable experiences of the Jhaveri family across four generations. In doing so, it advances two key arguments about money, power, and politics in the Indian subcontinent. First, the dissolution of the Mughal Empire starting in the 1680s firmly fits global patterns of military-logistics overstretch, that is, pushing ambitions of conquest further than what the Mughals could manage and pay for. The Mughal state relied on commodity-backed silver as its primary currency. Much of this raw silver came to India from South American mines through trade. Unlike modern times, the Mughal state could not simply print more coins to resolve its financial woes. To overcome this, provincial governors, including Sarbuland Khan, began borrowing heavily from prominent businesspersons, especially members of the Jhaveri family. This seemed reasonable enough at first, but the practice quickly became violently unsustainable as money streams ran dry.

The second argument focuses on how Mughal financial troubles both coincided with and further engendered massive political crises from within the ranks of the Mughal bureaucracy, unleashing regional forces that led to the empire’s gradual dissolution. As central ministers and provincial governors realized that the organization from which they derived a sense of power, social belonging, and income was going bust without recovery, they sought to extract all that they could from a crumbling Mughal edifice in the locality.

Many even tried to establish their own areas of independent control, often involving surprising alliances with rivals against whom they fought spirited battles in years prior. Such scrambles by political elites to preserve older forms of leadership and establish new state machinery provided significant opportunities for financial entrepreneurship that members of the Jhaveri family astutely identified and tried to exploit.

With the advantage of historical hindsight, Bankrolling Empire traces how the Jhaveris of Ahmedabad became central to political dispensations emerging in the wake of the Mughal dissolution. By analyzing the family across several generations, we see how they combined political awareness, personal capital, and unusual courage to adapt their businesses to the needs of the hour. A long-term trend inaugurated during the crisis of the Mughal Empire by the early 18th century was the growing reliance on private capital and debt by political actors to fund projects of statecraft.

Unlike pre-Mughal and Mughal India during the 16th and 17th centuries, when the strength of sovereigns and their governors determined the nature of political authority and organisation in the locality, 18th-century India marked a critical turning point in that political power was starting to be brokered through principles of financial diplomacy. As we shall see, this would not have been possible without the money and services provided by economic elites like the Jhaveris, whose initial forays into the exciting world of the Mughal court trace back to the seventeenth century. But first, who were the Jhaveris and where did they come from? Read Bankrolling Empire to find out.

Sudev Sheth is a professor at the University of Pennsylvania where he teaches across the School of Arts and Sciences and the Wharton School.

Excerpted with permission from Bankrolling Empire: Family Fortunes and Political Transformation in Mughal India, Sudev Sheth, Cambridge University Press.